Jacob Johnson Memorial Grant Winners

In late October 2017, I announced three grants to honor my late husband, Jacob Johnson. I wanted to make sure that his sudden death was not what he was known for, but instead his talent, generosity and kindness. I created the grants to spread his joy and keep him remembered.

Saturday, January 20, 2018 to Monday, January 22, 2018 a show of Jacob’s photography will be open to the public at 1821 W Hubbard #102, Chicago, IL 60622. Gallery hours are 10AM — 6PM. This memorial show is the first time his work has ever been printed, framed or displayed.

Hundreds of applications came in from all over the world. A diverse and talented group submitted stories that were emotional, thought-provoking, and as unique as the photographers who captured them. I was tempted to open the images as they were submitted every day, but I waited until after the deadline in December to pour over each entry. Over many hours, huddled by the light of my laptop, I heard the voices of strangers speaking to me through these photographers’ powerful images.

I compiled the top 50 entries into a presentation, and then hosted a panel of fellow photographers and friends to help me deliberate. As we compared the work, we assessed how each project would best represent the category, and spent four hours trying to decide on winners. We talked about what Jacob would have wanted and how he would be so humbled by the quality of the entries.

The three $2,500 grants were established to catalyze compelling personal narratives. As a professional photographer, I realize that amount of money is not enough to make or break a project, but it’s my small contribution to validate the artists’ work and alleviate the overall costs of making the images. I consider it a reward for a great idea and astounding photography.

I’ve included text from each photographer’s application as captions, along with their winning images.


To honor the city that helped shape Jacob as an artist, one grant will be awarded to Adam Jason Cohen, working on a project titled Mild Sauce. His images serve as documents of the long-lasting and profound connections he’s made with people and places in Chicago. The mainstream media’s depiction of Chicago is often violent, dehumanizing or predatory, but Cohen invites his viewers in for a much more personal and intimate narrative.

“The photographs in this collection have spanned over the past 8 years. The length of which I have lived in Chicago. They are photographs of my friends. Family. Taken with point and shoot cameras in the moment. In the moment, I am an active participant.” — Adam Jason Cohen
“This photograph went from one of my favorites to incredibly hard to look at very quickly. Within two months, all these young men had been killed. The two on the far ends, whom are brothers both passed on Christmas Eve morning. These were good kids. Kids who didn’t deserve to die at 19 and 20 years old. Here, in Chicago, those two deaths just meant two poor black kids dead. Statistics. I’ve known these kids for half a decade. Their lives were more complex than that. More complex than two black males from the West Side who were killed by gun violence. More complex than a simple tally. This is how the city of Chicago looks at them. My work gives them that significance, or at least I try. These were lives that were full. These stories need to be humanized for people understand what the loss of life actually means. How important this is. That is just one story in this body of work.” — Adam Jason Cohen
“This body of photographs are almost scenes from a film. Stories intertwined, met by serendipity.” — Adam Jason Cohen
“Ultimately, as a film shooter, the majority of the funding will go to film and processing, with the left over being used for work prints and making a book that will share these friends who have affected me so dearly.”— Adam Jason Cohen
“ These are people who have affected my life and took me in as family. Some of them are still here with us, some have left us. It is important for me to honor the legacy of those relationships and have them immortalized. ” — Adam Jason Cohen
“Mild Sauce, the title of the collection, is a condiment that is found only in Chicago, specifically the South and West sides at fast food restaurants. Everyone knows the specific ingredients but they could never replicate it at home. Almost like these photographs. Takes something special to finish it.” — Adam Jason Cohen


To honor those often excluded from media due to their race, gender or social philosophy, one grant will be given to Zora J. Murff, producing work that gives voice to the underrepresented. His project, titled At No Point In Between, illustrates the ways in which violence against black people in America continues to shape landscapes, communities and identity, specifically in North Omaha, NE.

“As overt racial violence became a point of cultural shame, it was re-presented through government policy. The passing of the National Housing Act of 1934 brought with it the practice of redlining. These policies restricted individuals from receiving home and business loans, perpetuating the socioeconomic divide along the color line through the denial of access to wealth. Photographing in the historically African-American neighborhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, my survey examines not only race, segregation and financial disenfranchisement, but also how policies predicated through systemic white supremacy are a form of violence.” — Zora J Murff
“We perceive violence dichotomously between fast and slow, and readily understand forms of fast violence — like lynching — because they are reinforced by our narrow perception of what it means to be at risk. Forms of slow violence — like redlining — are not so easily understood because their effects only become visible after long periods of time. The slow violence of redlining pushed African-Americans into the North Omaha neighborhood and kept them there. Following the collapse of the industrial economy — the sector in which many Black individuals were employed — the community was devastated financially and fell into disrepair.” — Zora J Murff
“I represent slow violence through photographs of the architecture and surrounding landscape, those who inhabit it, and by referencing the tumultuous local histories of fast violence spurred by racism. Slow violence subtly marks the landscape, and my depictions of structures and scenes are poetic reflections on how space has been shaped.” — Zora J Murff
“The portraits are points of confrontation with those who are affected by slow violence, and emphasize a push and pull between intimacy and distance. Together, these silent images weave a complex narrative about person, place, presence, and absence.” — Zora J Murff
“My reflections on past injustices are a contemplation on Black identity as something other than a body held in contempt. Through photography, we can see the mark that has already been made. If we look and continue to ignore, the false image of Blackness will remain the fixed image.” — Zora J Murff
“This project began during my tenure as a graduate student, but upon matriculation, I will lose the support in the way of facilities and equipment. My intent is to use funding to rent a studio and living space in North Omaha, purchase my own large-format camera, film, processing supplies, and professional scanner. Once the work is completed, I will prepare the work for exhibition and publication.” — Zora J Murff


In honor of our relationship, in which we photographed one another without hesitation, one grant will be awarded to Rachel Wisniewski who is working on a portrait series in response to the #MeToo movement. Her photographs feature women’s stories of their first experience with sexual assault or harassment. She artfully pairs a present-day image of the subject with an old photograph from the age in which the incident occurred.

“My project (currently untitled) is a direct response to the #MeToo movement. While I knew statistically, as well as from personal stories, that almost every woman has been sexually harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives. Seeing my timeline light up with proclamations was devastating, and I believe especially shocking for men to witness.” — Rachel Wisniewski
My project consists of diptychs. The first photograph is a portrait of a woman who has survived harassment or assault; the second photograph is a close-up image of that same subject holding a portrait at the age when they can first remember being sexually harassed/assaulted. I believe that this combination of imagery will help to drive home several points: that harassment and assault have been an occurrence in women’s lives for as long as they can remember, that no one is immune to harassment and assault, and that the woman is never asking for it.” — Rachel Wisniewski
“My project is unique in that it gives women an opportunity to share and men an opportunity to listen, learn, and change the conversation about sexual harassment and assault.” — Rachel Wisniewski
“I feel extremely passionate about producing this project. Being fortunate enough to win this grant would alleviate financial stress and allow me time and energy to produce this work.” — Rachel Wisniewski

Thank you, applicants. Congratulations, winners. And to the everyone reading — your stories matter. Keep telling them.